One of the first immigrant families to seek sanctuary in Lansing faces continued hurdles amid a controversial federal system after a mother and two of her children were deported to Mexico last month.
Monica and her boyfriend, José — identified only by first name by those fighting for their citizenship — have sought for years to escape violence across the border with their three young children. But an unexpected detainment last week at a Detroit immigration office ensured it would be remain an uphill battle.
Advocates said the family tried unsuccessfully three years ago to seek asylum in the United States. Monica’s latest, “last-ditch” effort to avoid Immigration and Customs Enforcement and keep her family together had failed. Monica’s deportation was a loss for her lawyers, but they’ve since rallied around José and his oldest child.
As Monica readjusts to her life in Mexico with two of her children, José soon will have a tough choice to make. Does he accept defeat and return south to his family? Or does he continue to push back against the system to escape gang-related violence, find more lucrative employment and continue to support his family from afar?
Community advocates, including folks from Action of Greater Lansing and Michigan United, said they’ll do everything they can to assist José amid a complicated legal framework later next month. But a federal judge’s ruling will ultimately determine whether the United States will even give him the chance to stick around.
“He has been so traumatized by all of this that, at this point, I’m not sure what he’s going to do,” said Paulette Johnston, sanctuary coordinator at All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing. “It’s a human tragedy. It’s one of many, heartbreaking human tragedies related to all of this. Our immigration laws need to be addressed.”
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Monica and José didn’t come to Lansing on a whim. They thought they would be protected.
An old boyfriend physically assaulted Monica. Gang members solicited José to become an informant. The couple in 2015 decided to take their kids from Michoacan to an entry port near San Isidro in search of a better life. Salaries were higher stateside. And America, they thought, would offer them a wealth of new opportunities.
But dreams quickly turned to nightmares after they were forcefully separated at the border. Monica and her three children were detained in one facility, José in another. And this was standard procedure. It was a year before President Donald Trump took office and long before officials took steps to prevent the practice.
Trump signed an executive order in June to curb the separation of families at the border, by instead detaining parents and children together indefinitely. Community advocates suggested the new directive would have probably kept Monica and José together when they first arrived.
“It was no reflection on the current administration,” Johnston added. “We’re not pointing fingers at this point.”
An immigration court eventually denied Monica’s request for asylum for unknown reasons. A lack of identifying details prevented the release of immigration-related documents to City Pulse. And the couple couldn’t be reached for an interview. Their story, instead, was told by those who worked on their case.
Oscar Castaneda, with Action of Greater Lansing, isn’t sure why Monica missed a 30-day deadline to appeal the decision, but he suggested a language barrier and insufficient funds played a role. News of a “sanctuary church” for immigrants, in the meantime, attracted her to Lansing after she was ordered to report for deportation in July.
“They were doing everything they needed to do,” added Dedria Humphries, senior warden at All Saints.
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Cristo Rey Church held a press conference last month to announce its newly decided status as a sanctuary for immigrants facing deportation. The Rev. Fred Thelen spoke to the crowd about basic human rights and a faith-based desire to protect those suffering at the hands of the federal government.
Last year, Lansing also joined a growing movement of “sanctuary cities,” but the City Council reversed course weeks later. At least two local churches, among others across the state, have since assumed the role.
And ICE doesn’t mess around with where people worship. Spokesman Khaalid Walls said “sensitive locations” like churches, hospitals and schools are generally off-limits for his agents except for ambiguously “exigent” circumstances. The thought: Monica and Jose would be safe as long as they were to stay inside.
Thelen, however, may have spoken too soon. Planned living quarters weren’t finished, so he turned to the only other sanctuary in the Lansing area: All Saints Episcopal Church. Officials there had a shower, kitchen and bedroom ready for the family, but the clock was ticking on a government-forced flight to Mexico.
Monica attempted to delay her deportation until Jose’s hearing could be sorted out next month, Castaneda said. But federal agents on July 26, despite a planned deportation the next day, opted to handcuff her before she could file the paperwork. Her last day here was spent locked in a cell, away from her family.
“She needed a place, at the very, very least for a couple of weeks, so we could go through the documentation and build up the case,” Castaneda said. “We really only had 24 hours, and it was just not enough time for her.” He said agents labeled her a “flight risk” despite a location monitor fastened around her ankle.
“It was tragic because she lost that last 18 hours that could have been with her family,” Johnston added.
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Jose remains in Michigan as legal proceedings continue. His 15-year-old son’s whereabouts are unknown.
An executive order, issued last month from Trump’s office, will also likely further erode their legal footing after the administration overturned asylum protections for victims of domestic and gang-related violence.
Advocates said the family, as a result, face a largely uncertain future amid a tense political landscape.
“We’re having conversations with lawyers and seeing who is willing to take their case,” Castaneda said.
All Saints — fueled by the “hateful rhetoric” spewing from the Oval Office and a simple desire to help others — agreed to float Jose’s attorney fees as his legal battles push forward into September. Humphries suggested they probably could have also done more to help Monica had her team had more time to delve into the case.
“Everybody was sitting there crying because we’re doing the best we can with the situation and the resources that we had,” Humphries said. “Christ said not to look away from the suffering humans around you. Even if it involves some action against the government or the law, religion has a moral code that needs to be followed.”
Johnston said “pretty much everyone” in the country believes in the foundational ideals of justice and treating people — regardless of their nationality — with fairness and dignity. “One of the major problems is that we tend to lose sight of those ideals,” she said, further encouraging residents to voice their concerns with political action.
Recent calls to All Saints suggested more immigrant families may soon be en route to the region as federal regulations tighten and the battle for citizenship continues. Visit lansingcitypulse.com for updates on this family’s immigration case as they become available, among others that may develop later this year.